Cooley Landing, on the shores of East Palo Alto, has been used and abused over the last century. It was even the San Mateo County dump for a couple of decades. But a local environmental artist is helping community members feel like the site belongs to them now.
On Saturday, Apr. 16, the city of East Palo Alto opens a new community center on this nine acre patch of restored wetlands. Ahead of the big day, a crack cadre of sewing enthusiasts at the East Palo Alto Senior Center has been working on a massive quilt with textile artist Linda Gass.
This is painstaking, detailed work that's not so easy on aging eyes. Years ago, the Senior Center ladies used to make clothes, drapes and quilts. "My mom did the same, and she taught me," says 77-year-old Dorothy Lewis. She has lived in East Palo Alto since 1959, and as a child, saw her fair share of sewing parties. "They did their own designs. It was nice watching them all sit around and dip snuff."
Game to help
As long as Gass is willing to thread the needles, 71-year-old sewing volunteer Carolyn White is more than game to help. "You know what I love about this quilt?" White says. "Everybody can participate in it. To show how we work together as people. It’s a family affair."
Linda Gass is an environmental artist who has spent much of her career focused on environmental issues. "I’m both an artist and an environmentalist, and I combine the two," Gass says.
In recent months, Gass has been a resident artist at Cooley Landing, thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Palo Alto Art Center and the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo. She's spent that time coming up with creative ways to connect locals to a recently restored natural resource on their shoreline. She helped lead art and science workshops last summer, and made five quilts, or "stitched paintings," as Gass calls them, inspired by Cooley Landing.
"We looked at mud samples under a microscope," Gass says of the process. "We did drawings, both looking far in the distance, and then looking very close, and drawing the finely detailed things that we saw. We were interested in the contrast between the man-made items here and the natural environment."
In addition to the quilts and the workshops, Gass martialed an army of helpers to create a temporary land art installation out of 2,000 blue plastic survey marking whiskers (a tool commonly used by surveyers to plot out construction and other survey sites.) Gass and her collaborators used whiskers to indicate the original San Francisco Bay shoreline before landfill came into the picture.
Community participation is key
Gass is keen to involve community members as active participants in her projects. She wanted the last, biggest quilt produced as a result of her residency to be something collectively created.
The artist had local high school students paint silk squares she pre-populated with designs of local wildlife. "So you’ll see pickle weed and water boatman bugs, leopard sharks, pelicans, mud crabs," she says.
Cooley Landing officially opened to the public in 2012. Operated by the city of East Palo Alto, the park was created in partnership with the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, which owns the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve just to the north. To the south lies the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, known for the highest concentration of the endangered clapper rail in the world.
On any given day, you'll see a wide variety of locals putting Cooley Landing to use in different ways. Fisherman cast for the sturgeon and striped bass. Couples meet for lunch at the picnic tables. Teens come here to smoke a joint.
But Gass feels that there is a difference between superficially appreciating the bucolic landscape and understanding what you're really looking at. "It really helps to have someone else teach you how to look at nature and be still," she says.
At the Eastern end of Bay Road, Cooley Landing juts out into the water, a stub of landfill with two prongs. From the air, it looks like the business end of an electric cord. To the north, you can see Dumbarton Bridge; to the south, a string of PG&E power line towers. Small planes take off in endless procession from Palo Alto Airport nearby.
No pristine wilderness
Even after a multi-million dollar clean-up and restoration, the edges of Cooley Landing are covered in chunks of concrete and rebar. Tires poke out of the mud.
Gass had her doubts when she first laid eyes on the place. "Because Cooley Landing had been a landfill and lots of toxic things had been dumped and burned here, I wasn’t sure that the water quality around Cooley Landing would be healthy," she says.
This was a brownfield, so toxic the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was willing to pitch in to help pay for the clean-up. It took 10 years of work with multiple agencies – not to mention the effort and money required to build the Educational Center.
East Palo Alto’s Mayor Donna Rutherford is proud of the Education Center's reclaimed Canadian cedar wood walls where the quilts will hang, and the structure's great big picture windows that look out onto the water. "I mean, it was a dump," Rutherford says. "Now it’s a jewel of our community. We’re going to enjoy it for years and years to come."
That remains to be seen. City Manager Carlos Martinez says East Palo Alto needs $250,000 a year to keep the building open. Martinez isn't sure at this point where the funds will come from. "We still have to determine that," he says.
Gass may not solve the cash flow problem. But with her bold quilts inspired by local wildlife, she’s managed to leave an artistic testament to the value of Cooley Landing, for the community it’s meant to serve.